WATTS et al v. AKO et al, No. 1:2016cv00697 - Document 26 (D.N.J. 2017)

Court Description: OPINION. Signed by Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez on 3/29/2017. (dmr)
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WATTS et al v. AKO et al Doc. 26 U N ITED STATES D ISTRICT COU RT FOR TH E D ISTRICT OF N EW JERSEY ___________________________ MICHAEL WATTS and J ESSICA OLSON, : PlaintiffS, v. : Hon. J oseph H. Rodriguez : Civil Action No. 16-697 DETECTIVE ATEM K. ATKO, DETECTIVE : CHRISTINE A. SULLIVAN and DETECTIVE J OHN DOE # 1 : Defendants. ________________________ _ : OPIN ION This m atter com es before the Court on m otion of Defendants Detectives Atem K. Ako (“Ako”) and Christine A. Sullivan (“Sullivan”) to dism iss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The Court has considered the written subm issions of the parties and the argum ents advanced at the hearing on February 22, 20 17. For the reasons stated on the record that day, as well as those that follow, Defendants’ m otion is granted in part and denied in part. Plaintiffs Michael Watts and J essica Olsen were arrested by the Defendants on February 19, 20 14 and charged with m oney laundering and involuntary servitude. The Defendants are both m em bers of the State of New J ersey Departm ent of Law and Safety, Division of Crim inal J ustice. In the eight count Com plaint, Plaintiffs set forth num erous Constitutional violations related to the arrest and search of the Plaintiffs, which stem s from an alleged factually baseless warrant obtained by Ako. Com pl. ¶ 16. In general term s, Defendants claim they were given inform ation by two witnesses related to R.W., 1 Dockets.Justia.com who is a young adult that resided with the Plaintiffs. These witnesses claim , am ong other things, that R.W. was being held in the house against her will. Based in part on this inform ation, Ako m ade an application for a search warrant and the eventual execution of the warrant lead to the Plaintiffs’ arrest and detention. As plead, the Com plaint sets forth facts sufficient to m eet notice pleading standard set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8. However, the Com plaint includes references and citations to several exhibits, which include the search warrant, transcripts of interviews with the two alleged witnesses, a copy of an interview with R.W., and a copy of the return of the search warrant. These references significantly expand the factual underpinnings of the Com plaint and form the basis for m ost of Defendants’ m otion to dism iss. I. Backgro u n d The Com plaint sets forth the following claim s. Counts I through IV set forth violations against Plaintiff Watts. Counts I and II allege a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Ako and Sullivan respectively, based on false arrest, m alicious prosecution, illegal search and seizure, due process violations, and deprivation of property. Count III alleges sim ilar claim s against J ohn Doe # 1 police officer. Count IV is styled as “Violation of Plaintiff’s First, Fourth, Fourteenth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Am endm ent Protection Against False Arrest, Malicious Prosecution, and Unlawful Search and Seizure of the Person and Property” as alleged by Watts against Defendants Ako, Sullivan and J ohn Doe # 1. Counts V though VIII relate to violations against Olson which m irror those plead as to Plaintiff Watts. 2 Defendants m ove for dism issal on the following grounds. First, all claim s against the Defendants in their official capacity should be dism issed on the basis of sovereign im m unity and because Defendants are not persons am enable to suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Second, Defendants claim that Plaintiffs’ repeated claim s of negligent behavior fails to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Third, Defendants m ove to dism iss the claim s under the Fifth and Fourteenth Am endm ents. Fourth, Defendants claim that the exhibits referenced in the Com plaint underm ine Plaintiffs’ claim s that probable cause was lacking for the search warrant and arrest. Fifth, Defendants claim that even if probable cause was lacking, the law at issue was not clearly established on February 19, 20 14. For all of these reasons, Defendants claim that that the Com plaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and should be dism issed. In their brief and on the record during oral argum ent, Plaintiffs state that they are not pursuing claim s against the Defendants in their official capacity and stipulate that any reference to claim s against the Defendants in their official capacity be stricken from the Com plaint. Plaintiffs also agree that to the extent these claim s can be inferred in the Com plaint, these claim s are dism issed with prejudice. In addition, Plaintiffs acknowledge claim s exclusive predicated upon negligent conduct fail to state a viable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Here, Plaintiffs’ use of the negligence standard is coupled with allegations of purposeful and intentional actions related to the Defendants’ conduct in the application for the warrant, execution thereof, and arrest and detention of the Plaintiffs. During the hearing in this m atter, Defendants agreed that such pleadings on their face give rise to a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For these reasons, the Court finds that the Com plaint as plead in paragraphs 38, 43, 45 are predicated willful and 3 intentional conduct and not m erely negligence. Defendants’ m otion to dism iss on this basis is denied. Finally, Plaintiffs agree that despite listing a Fifth Am endm ent violation in the Com plaint, Plaintiffs do not intend to pursue such a claim . As a result, Defendants m otion to dism iss on this basis is granted. The rem ainder of the claim s will be addressed in turn II. Stan d ard s o f Re vie w A. Motion to Dism iss Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to m ove for dism issal of a claim based on “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). A com plaint should be dism issed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if the alleged facts, taken as true, fail to state a claim . Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When deciding a m otion to dism iss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), ordinarily only the allegations in the com plaint, m atters of public record, orders, and exhibits attached to the com plaint, are taken into consideration.1 See Chester County Interm ediate Unit v. Pa. Blue Shield, 896 F.2d 80 8, 812 (3d Cir. 1990 ). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead evidence. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977). The question before the 1 “Although a district court m ay not consider m atters extraneous to the pleadings, a docum ent integral to or explicitly relied upon in the com plaint m ay be considered without converting the m otion to dism iss into one for sum m ary judgm ent.” U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 20 0 2) (internal quotation m arks and citations om itted) (em phasis deleted). Accord Lum v. Bank of Am ., 361 F.3d 217, 221 n.3 (3d Cir. 20 0 4) (citations om itted). Here, Plaintiffs’ Com plaint includes several references to exhibits attached to the Com plaint and the Court will consider these documents without converting the m otion to dism iss into a sum m ary judgm ent m otion. In re Rockefeller Ctr. Props., Inc. Sec. Litig., 184 F.3d 280 , 287 (3d Cir. 1999). 4 Court is not whether the plaintiff will ultim ately prevail. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 150 (20 0 7). Instead, the Court sim ply asks whether the plaintiff has articulated “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twom bly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (20 0 7). “A claim has facial plausibility2 when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the m isconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (20 0 9) (citing Twom bly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assum e their veracity and then determ ine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlem ent to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Thus, a m otion to dism iss should be granted unless the plaintiff’s factual allegations are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assum ption that all of the com plaint’s allegations are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Twom bly, 550 U.S. at 556 (internal citations om itted). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not perm it the court to infer m ore than the m ere possibility of m isconduct, the com plaint has alleged-but it has not ‘shown’-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Qualified Im m unity Plaintiff’s constitutional claim s are governed by Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a civil rem edy against any person who, under color of state law, deprives 2 This plausibility standard requires m ore than a mere possibility that unlawful conduct has occurred. “When a complaint pleads facts that are ‘m erely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlem ent to relief.’’” Id. 5 another of rights protected by the United States Constitution. See Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 50 3 U.S. 115, 120 (1992). Any analysis of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 should begin with the language of the statute: Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom , or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Colum bia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or im m unities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As the above language m akes clear, Section 1983 is a rem edial statute designed to redress deprivations of rights secured by the Constitution and its subordinate federal laws. See Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 n.3 (1979). By its own words, therefore, Section 1983 “does not . . . create substantive rights.” Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 20 0 6) (citing Baker, 443 U.S. at 145, n.3). To state a cognizable claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff m ust allege a “deprivation of a constitutional right and that the constitutional deprivation was caused by a person acting under the color of state law.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 20 0 8) (citing Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 120 4 (3d Cir. 1996)). Thus, a plaintiff m ust dem onstrate two essential elem ents to m aintain a claim under § 1983: (1) that the plaintiff was deprived of a “right or privileges secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States” and (2) that the plaintiff was deprived of his rights by a person acting under the color of state law. William s v. Borough of West Chester, Pa., 891 F.2d 458, 464 (3d Cir. 1989). The doctrine of qualified im m unity provides that “governm ent officials perform ing discretionary functions . . . are shielded from liability for civil dam ages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional 6 rights of which a reasonable person should have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 80 0 , 818 (1982). Thus, governm ent officials are im m une from suit in their individual capacities unless, “taken in the light m ost favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right” and “the right was clearly established” at the tim e of the objectionable conduct. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 20 1 (20 0 1). Courts m ay exercise discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified im m unity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circum stances in the particular case at hand. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (20 0 9). This doctrine “balances two im portant interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irrespon sibly and the need to shield officials from harassm ent, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably” and it “applies regardless of whether the governm ent official’s error is a m istake of law, a m istake of fact, or a m istake based on m ixed questions of law and fact.” Id. (internal quotation om itted). Properly applied, qualified im m unity “protects ‘all but the plainly incom petent or those who knowingly violate the law.’” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 20 74, 20 85 (20 11) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). For a right to be clearly established, “[t]he contours of the right m ust be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Saucier, 533 U.S. at 20 2 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). That is, “[t]he relevant, dispositive inquiry in determ ining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 492 (20 0 6). “If the officer’s m istake as to what the law requires is reasonable,” the 7 officer is entitled to qualified im munity. Couden, 446 F.3d at 492 (internal citations om itted). Further, “[i]f officers of reasonable com petence could disagree on th[e] issue, im m unity should be recognized.” Malley, 475 U.S. at 341 (1986). See also Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (20 0 4) (The general touchstone is whether the conduct of the official was reasonable at the tim e it occurred.) Finally, because qualified im munity is an affirm ative defense, the burden of proving its applicability rests with the defendant. See Beers-Capital v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120 , 142, n.15 (3d Cir. 20 0 1). III. An alys is The factual background of this case is extensive and weaves together several narratives that center on R.W., who is a young adult that lived with the Plaintiffs. R.W. was introduced to Plaintiffs by a co-worker at the Kohl’s Departm ent Store. Ex. B. Through the coworker, R.W. m et two wom en, Chloe and Chanel, who are both exotic dancers at the Cove in Philadelphia and lived at Plaintiffs’ residence during the relevant tim e period. Id. After som e tim e, R.W. was convinced to m ove into Plaintiffs’ Delran residence and to pursue em ploym ent at the Cove as a dancer. Id. R.W. understood that Chloe and Chanel were Watts’s girlfriends even though they referred to Watts as “Daddy.” Id. R.W. m oved out of her m other’s house and into Plaintiffs’ residence on or about February 3, 20 14. In her statem ent, R.W. claim s that when she m oved in, she was im m ediately uneasy and felt that som ething was am iss. Id., p. 21. R.W. claim s she went upstairs into her own room to unpack. Id., p. 26. When Watts told her that he was going to take her out to get new clothes, R.W. tried to stall by stating that she wanted to do her hair. Id., 28. R.W.’s stall tactic was em ployed to give her tim e to contact her m other and wait for her m other to com e and pick her up. 8 Plaintiffs’ highlight R.W.’s testim ony where she claim s that during this period of tim e while she waited for her m other, R.W. told the police that Watts never cam e into her room , never observed her change clothes, and that R.W. did not shower. Id., at 28-29. According to Plaintiffs’ R.W.’s statem ent to the Delran Police dem onstrates that she changed her m ind about wanting to leave Plaintiffs’ residence because she told police that she realized that the girls in the house worked as a team , that she would not have to dance nude, and that she wanted to try and m ake som e real m oney from dancing. Id., pp. 31-33. In addition, Watts’ living circum stances were the subject of a reality television show titled “For the Love of one” and Watts assured R.W. that she was not required to participate in the film ing of his docum entary. Id. pp 41-42. The Delran Police declined to take any action following their interview of R.W. and Plaintiffs ask the Court to infer, on this basis, that no grounds existed for further investigation and that Ako’s pursuit of a warrant lacked all probable cause. During this tim e, Defendant Ako had been em ployed in his capacity for a little over one year. See Ex. A. p4. On February 10 , 20 14, Ako was contacted by a United States Probation Officer about Plaintiff Watts and inform ed that Watts’s residence housed a num ber of young girls. Id., Ex. A, pp. 5-6. Ako also avers that R.W.’s m other contacted the Delran Police Departm ent because she believed that her daughter was being held against her will and was not free to leave the residence. Id., pp. 7-8. Based on the m other’s com plaint, the Delran Police went to Watts’s residence, rem oved R.W., and took her to the police station for questioning. While at the police station, R.W. provided a taped statem ent regarding her living circum stances with the Plaintiffs. The Delran 9 Police perm itted R.W., who was 18 years old at the tim e to return to Plaintiffs’ residence after the interview concluded. Ako, however, after com ing into possession of the Delran Police docum ents, authored an affidavit in support of an application for a search warrant of Plaintiffs’ residence. Ako’s Affidavit included a com prehensive list of item s to be seized and includes a recitation of Ako’s “expertise” and “qualifications” in the facts section of the application. Id. The Affidavit details som e of the alleged circum stances of R.W.’s living arrangem ent with the Plaintiffs and highlights the alleged fact that R.W. was forced to relinquish her flip phone, was provided a phone by the Plaintiffs, and her access to social m edia was m anaged by Plaintiffs in an alleged attem pt to exert control over every aspect of her life. Id. Watts is also alleged to have com m andeered R.W.’s social security card and license. Id. The Affidavit states that no sexual acts or physical restraints were alleged by R.W., but that R.W. believed Watts (“Daddy”) to be a pim p. Plaintiffs point out that Ako did not contact R.W. or her m other before relying on the aforem entioned inform ation as the basis for the warrant application. In addition, Plaintiffs claim that in an effort to support his narrative of illegal activity, Ako took liberty in characterizing facts in a m anner that overlooked R.W.’ s testim ony. Instead, it is alleged that Ako uses his “experience” to weave a connective web between certain facts and their indication of illegal conduct. Ako’s questionable m otive, it is alleged, is evidence by the lack of urgency he exhibits in obtaining the warrant. Alm ost eleven days after R.W. was picked up by the Delran Police and gave her statem ent, Ako’s warrant was executed and the Plaintiffs were arrested. Som e of the evidence attached to the Com plaint, com piled after the 10 arrests, paints a benign picture of consenting adults engaging in group living. For exam ple, two of Watts’s girlfriends gave statem ents, J ulieann Colon and Michelle Rolon. In sum , both girls claim that they freely agreed to the living arrangem ent with Watts and knowingly entered into a group relationship. See generally, Exs. C &D. In addition, they claim that their personal inform ation, including social security cards and licenses, were taken by Watts but quickly returned. Id., Ex. C, 40 . J ulieann claim ed that Watts paid for her m edical exam and that the exam was necessary to rule out any com m unicable disease, including sexually transm itted diseases that m ay infect the other girls in the relationship. Id. J ulieann disavowed prostitution claim s at hom e or at the Cove and states that Watts never asked the girls to engage in any prostitution. Id., p. 68. Michelle Rolon lived with Olsen and Watts before they m oved to Delran and her residency preceded Colon’s m ove into the house. Ex. D., 12-15. Rolon claim s that after she becam e involved with Watts, five other wom en joined the fold, all willingly and knowingly. Id., 23. For these reasons, Plaintiffs argue that Defendants’ attem pt to paint the Plaintiffs as engaging in nefarious activity is objectively unreasonable. Although the aforem entioned facts are not fully com prehensive, they serve to highlight the favorable inferences Plaintiffs enjoy on a m otion to dism iss. The Court recognizes that a finding of qualified im m unity should be m ade at the earliest possible point in a case. A finding that Defendants are entitled to qualified im m unity on this m otion discounts the favorable inferences that advance Plaintiffs’ claim s, predicates a disposition on a lim ited factual record, and im plicates the Third Circuit’s cautionary directive that dism issal predicated upon qualified im munity at the m otion to dism iss stage “is generally unwise . . . as it is necessary to develop the factual record in the vast 11 m ajority of cases.” Newland v. Reehorst, 328 Fed. Appx. 788, 791 n. 3 (3d Cir. 20 0 9). As a result, the Court finds that qualified im munity does not attach at this tim e, although Defendants m ay raise the defense on sum m ary judgm ent, and Defendants’ m otion is denied on this basis. Finally, Defendants m otion to dism iss Plaintiffs’ claim s under the Fourteenth Am endm ent is denied in part. In so far as Plaintiffs’ claim s invoke Fourth Am endm ent protects, the m otion is denied. Plaintiffs argue that the Fourteenth Am endm ent is plead insofar as it m akes the Fourth Am endm ent applicable to the states. Where a constitutional am endm ent provides explicit protection against a particular kind of governm ent action, that am endm ent is the source of the Court’s evaluation of a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 rather than the general rights granted by the Fourteenth Am endm ent. County of Sacram ento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 841 (1998) (citing Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 273 (1994)). Allegations of false arrest and false im prisonm ent are evaluated under the Fourth Am endm ent rather than the Fourteenth Am endm ent. See, e.g., United States v. Lanier, 520 U.S. 259, 272 (1997); Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 268-69 (3d Cir. 20 0 0 ). Therefore, the Court will consider Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim s under the Fourth Am endm ent. IV. Co n clu s io n For the reasons stated herein, Defendants’ m otion is granted in part and denied in part. The Court grants the m otion insofar as the Com plaint alleges claim s against the Defendants in their official capacity and dism isses all claim s, to the extent such claim s are pled, arising under the Fifth Am endm ent. Plaintiffs’ constitutional claim s will be evaluated under the Fourth Am endm ent rather than the Fourteenth Am endm ent. 12 An appropriate Order shall issue. Dated: March 29, 20 17 s/ J oseph H. Rodriguez HON. J OSEPH H. RODRIGUEZ, United States District J udge 13